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-= Random thoughts on officiating at higher levels ... =-
Random thoughts on officiating at higher levels
by Mike "Skipper" Goblet
"Cogito ergo Arbitro - I think therefore Umpire"
Member of the Masters of Mayhem

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The realities that have an effect upon officiating at the professional levels of sport exist, and whether you or I like it or don't has zero impact upon that reality. Any time money, especially great amounts of money, enters into the equation, the situation changes.

What many believe to be "pure" soccer a la American rule-driven sports exists only in theory. In reality, the application of the Laws is dynamic, that is to say that application of the Law is situationally-driven. There are no two matches alike, from Under-6 to Over-35, although they may be doubtless similar. If we accept this position, then it follows that what may be deemed a foul in a high-tension match may not be in an "easy" match. Likewise, fouls called in a Division 4 Amateur (Adult) match may not even deserve acknowledgement in a Division 1 match.

What comprises the dynamic forces that create the situations that drive the application of the Laws?

Enter the human element - the relationship involving players, their teammates, their opponents, their coaches, the opposing coaches, the spectators, and the referee. Each of these entities brings their own expectations, understandings, behaviors, skills, and maturity. Each has good days and bad days. This interplay of dozens of individuals is the primary contributor in the dynamics that form each individual match.

Blend in the situational elements of the match. The importance of the match. The history between the two teams. The weather conditions - heat or cold, sun or cloud, dry or rainy/snowing. The field conditions - the markings, fixtures, team and spectator areas (team and its spectators on the same side or on opposite sides). The interplay of these elements is a secondary contributor in the dynamics that form each individual match.

Add some other elements to the mix. League rules and expectations. Social/Societal expectations. Commercial expectations (these affect both youth in tournaments and adults in leagues - some of which can involve prize money and "amateur" players who are paid to play). Professional coaches of youth teams introduce some very interesting elements of their own.

The items mentioned in the last three paragraphs (which are in no way inclusive of all elements which contribute to the dynamics of play) are dynamics which impact on every match, dynamics which must be taken into account by the referee as an important part in determining the man- and match- management strategy they will employ in that specific match.

There are many referees who have never been exposed to these concepts, and this will become more problematic as the game matures. The referee cannot be literally (Letter of the Law) driven in their application of the Laws and hope to remain competent and capable as the game grows. Right now there are referees so far behind the curve that the players are making fools of them. The future of the game depends upon referees who are growing in step with the game. The real crime in this situation is the utter paucity of real education in many areas and the unwillingness (driven by the lack of referees, I sincerely hope) of some National State Organizations to enforce re-registration qualification standards. Some NSAs at least require some referees to attend a re-registration clinic, although any educator will suggest that the brain doesn't do well after a few hours of sitting.

Each individual referee should be familiar with at least some of the factors contributing to the dynamics of a match.

Where am I going with this? I am trying to illustrate that there are certain elements that enter the game at its higher levels which appear totally inconsistent with the game most of us know.

Some additional concepts must be introduced.

Free kicks aren't free. Take a crowd of 50,000 paying an average of $15.00 per ticket. That grosses $750,000. For argument's sake, let's say that it costs each person an extra $10.00 for transportation and miscellaneous things bought at the stadium (very low estimate). That's another $500,000. To keep things simple, there is no TV or radio involved. Our total is $1,250,000, or almost $13,900 per minute. Now these 50,000 came to see their heroes play, not to see players standing around. If an average free kick takes 20 seconds from whistle to restart, that free kick has cost over $4,600. No one wants excessive stoppages for fouls that are not absolutely necessary to right a grievous wrong or to maintain control. Most referees never consider this aspect, yet through judicious foul selection at least a few more minutes of time when the ball is in play can be achieved.

Marquee players draw paying spectators. As we have seen in hoops, baseball, and many other sports, the true stars of the game do receive special treatment. An average player may get sent off, but a marquee may, and I emphasize may, receive a yellow card. A travesty, some would say. A fact of life, others would say. A matter of economics still others will say. If the star player won't be playing in the next match, be it home of away, the gate will be smaller.

Players often become very annoyed with a referee that interrupts their match for fouls that do not injure them, and exceptionally annoyed with a referee that fails to protect them from injury. At the highest level, players want to be allowed to play through fouls that commonly see cautions and even send offs in other games. Players also have a very particular sense of justice and, strangely enough, mercy. When fouls do not involve injury, it is not uncommon for a player to ask the referee not to send off the fouler.

The game at the highest levels is a very different animal from Sunday afternoon soccer. The pressures are different, the dynamics are different, the demands and concerns are different. The game is called very differently, and will always be. Referees who do not work games at that level should not model their methods and procedures on what they observe at that level, nor should they allow players to use the excuse "they don't call that on the pro level" to compel them to do so.

Referees should officiate as is appropriate for the level they serve, which means the 99.5% of matches should not be officiated as the .5% are. One may discuss the propriety of what one sees, however, one must also understand that while it is fundamentally the same game, it is considerably different in its management.

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